I’ve been trying to sell It Follows to friends and family ever since catching it for TIFF back in September, but it never feels like I do the film justice. However, it turns out, writer-director David Robert Mitchell has the same problem so now I can be a little less self-conscious about jumping into this synopsis. The movie stars Maika Monroe as Jay. She thinks she’s found a great guy, but it turns out, Hugh (Jake Weary) is just playing her. Hugh caught a nasty STD and now, no matter where he goes, “it” is following him. It doesn’t move fast so he could certainly outrun it, but no matter where he goes, it’s still on his tail and if it catches him, it’ll kill him – unless he passes it on to someone else.
With It Follows hitting select theaters on March 13th, I got the opportunity to sit down with Mitchell to discuss making the move from The Myth of the American Sleepover to this, the challenging rotating shots, what they called “it” on set, his thoughts on making another horror movie and more. You can catch it all in the interview below, and click here to check out my review of It Follows.
Question: I read that you got this idea from a dream you had as a kid. Can you tell me about going from that to turning it into a STD?
DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL: Yeah, well that came later. I had the nightmare when I was like nine or ten or something, I always remembered pieces of that nightmare, the feeling from it. I’ve always wanted to make a horror film and so I always kept thinking about that nightmare. So, over the years, I’d just kind of add things to it. In the nightmare it’s about being followed by something that looked like different people, all the things that are in the film, it was very slow, it’s not that hard to get away from it if you’re paying attention, but it’s the fact that it’s always coming for you. I just tried to kind of build on that feeling of dread and then at some point I started thinking, ‘Oh, it’d be fun if it’s something that can move between different people,’ almost like a game of tag to some degree. And then it sort of became clear to me like, ‘Oh, it should be through sex because it would sort of connect the characters physically and emotionally.’ It just felt like the right thing. But that happened over a lot of years just sort of in the back of my brain.
How do you go from that to what we see on screen now? I think you give us the right amount of information, but for you yourself as a writer-director, do you have to figure out all the rules of what this thing is, how it started, how to beat it, etc.?
MITCHELL: Yes, you have to work that out. It’s something I just would think about. As I started writing I made sure I had a sort of clear sense of that. But there’s a difference between the way I see it and the character’s interpretation of the events, so the rules within the film are the rules within the film. This is kind of a bit of a nitpicky distinction, but we understand what this monster is through one of the characters and he gives these rules to another character, but those rules are just things that he has figured out based on his own experiences and what he’s seen, and maybe what he’s heard from someone else – but unlikely if you hear the way he received it, if that’s true. And so, they’re not so much my rules. They’re this guy’s rules and he’s probably mostly right, but there’s a question of how accurate even he is.
Did you ever work out what happened to Hugh and how he caught it?
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah. I have all that in my head. Yes. And then there’s the girl in the beginning and how she ties into all that. Yes, all that is there. I think that’s fairly clear. Some people maybe don’t see it and some people have said, ‘Oh, it’s very clear what happens in terms of her being someone that he’s probably …” Either you see it or you don’t. I guess I’m hesitant to say because it’s always fun to not – it’s very clear to me and I have had some people say, ‘Oh, it’s this and this and this,’ and they sort of spot it, but not everybody does. I’m not sure if it’s difficult or not difficult. I don’t know.
What about patient zero? Is there one?
MITCHELL: Then that gets into origin, which is the thing that I’d never want to get into. That gets closer to being something in the real world. It’s something that’s more connected to either reality or to like, magic to some degree and to me this movie is more about a nightmare and in a nightmare there doesn’t need to be magic or a physical explanation for something. It just simply is and that’s sort of the way I see the movie is that it’s the characters literally find themselves within a nightmare and you can’t logically solve a nightmare. If it needs to be solved by some sort of puzzle or some sort of thing that you do or a sequence of events or any kind of silly scenario you can come up with, the moment you do that then it becomes about magic or something else as opposed to a nightmare.
What was your elevator pitch for this? Ever since I first saw it, I’ve been trying to describe it to people and I haven’t found a way that does it justice.
MITCHELL: There wasn’t one and the reason is because any elevator pitch for this would be just terrible. I literally avoided talking about the movie to people. The way that we got people on board the film was literally, we sent the script and I did a really nice lookbook for the film that kind of walked through the feeling of the film. I think it took probably both those things to convince people. But no. Personally, I couldn’t pitch this to anybody. And when people would ask me what I was doing, I’d be like, ‘It’s a horror film.’ ‘What is it about?’ ‘You’ll just have to see it.’ I really didn’t want to explain it because it’s really tough to explain without it just sounding really ridiculous.
Did The Myth of the American Sleepover help pave the way to this at all even though they’re so different?
MITCHELL: Probably a little bit. Yeah, I think that probably the financiers seeing that I had done one film that some people enjoyed I think probably helped. But ultimately, it’s still not easy. It’s never easy.
Did that help you out in terms of budget? Was this a big step up from that?
MITCHELL: Well, I mean, anything would be a major step up from that film. That movie we made for, our production budget was like $30,000. So anything would’ve been a step up. And yes, this is not a large budget by any means and definitely it was still a struggle to put this movie together for what we had, definitely a major struggle to make this movie, but, that said, it was still much more than I had before, yes.
Can you tell me about casting? You really put together a great ensemble here. Was it a traditional casting process with mixing and matching?
MITCHELL: Yeah, totally. Our casting director, Mark Bennett out of LA, we just auditioned a bunch of people in New York and LA, that’s where most of the cast came from between the two cities and a few people from Detroit. Yeah, it was really just about trying to find the best group and the best actors for the parts.
Did the characters change much after you picked who was going to play them?
MITCHELL: As much as they ever do in the sense that, you know, that person’s personality or take on that character is going to alter it in some degree, but I think that mostly they’re the characters that we wrote.
How about directing your actors, and specifically directing them when “it” is involved. What kind of notes do you give them so they know what they’re seeing?
MITCHELL: If they’re not seeing it then it’s just about reacting to the person they care about, however they’re reacting to it and how you would respond if someone that you care about or your friends with is freaking out for some reason. It’s basically Mika, for the most part, in terms of her reactions to it. I don’t know if I remember any of the specifics of what we talked about, but I think she was very good at tapping into fear. I think she’s just really good at tapping into some sort of darker place and fear. That was never difficult for her. She was always very good at it.
Does “it” have a name? How would you refer to “it” on set?
MITCHELL: Everybody said different things. I’ve heard all kinds of stuff. We would just say, ‘Oh, those its.’ I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, it’s like the follower.’ I don’t really know. I never gave it a name, but sometimes we would refer to the different its by their physical description. You know, ‘the giant it,’ or whatever. That’s how we would refer to them.
How about making all the its consistent? Was there anything about their makeup that had to stay the same or the way they moved?
MITCHELL: Not really. I think wardrobe often put them in certain colors, certain style of clothing, but I’m of the opinion that they could be in anything and they can look like anything. And it just depends on the character and their perception of it because, you know, Hugh at one point sees it and the character is in yellow, but we don’t actually see that. It’s hard to say.
Now how about your shot selection? Maybe the 360-degree shot to start. Did you ever pinpoint when and why to use something like that?
MITCHELL: No, my rule is to use whatever feels right at the moment and then break that rule if you want. I like that as an approach, but no, we definitely had a sort of visual language that Mike [Gioulakis] the cinematographer and I spent a lot of time planning the look of the film. I initially went through and did really rough storyboards of the whole film and then Mike and I, we got together for a long period of time in like pre-pre-production, talked about everything, reworked stuff. Some I had planned like even at the writing stage and some we would add as we started planning the shots. A lot of the film was shot with fairly wide angle lenses, a lot of it’s shot on an 18. I wanted to really sort of put the audience into the scenes in the sense that you feel like you’re actually in that environment with them so it’s very experiential in a way. You can look into the distance, look under the edges of the frame. There are close-ups and there are some tighter shots in the film, but a lot of it is very wide so that you actually get a sense of the geography and where you are. Those rotating shots do that as well. It’s sort of like you’re looking around, but we’re controlling it. Scan quickly, keep looking and maybe things will pop up and maybe they won’t. It’s really just about trying to give you a real sense of space. There are some longer lens shots in the film, but they’re primarily just the zoom shots. The rest of the time you have a real sense of space. Even when it’s a subjective shot, the camera is still fairly close to the person whose point-of-view it is. We don’t generally cheat the point-of-view too much. There are moments when we might, but in general, we try not to.
How about orchestrating something like that on set? Was it tough to get everyone in the right place at the right time?
MITCHELL: Those are really hard. We knew what we wanted to do, but then you’re finding the location, you’re trying to find the place where you can actually pull that off. Maybe you don’t have as much time as you’d like to figure that out. And then the actual blocking and just pulling it off in terms of the shots, it’s really hard. That school one I think was really hard.
That one definitely has a lot going on. But even the opening scene …
MITCHELL: That was really hard and we were shooting it as the sun was going down. That was the plan that it was a dusk shot. That was tricky. That was stressful. But the school one – you know what? They were both stressful. [Laughs] The school one was probably harder logistically just because [there’s] a lot more people crossing frames at moments and just getting the cue right.
How about taking this through post? I imagine you watched it countless times. Is it tough to judge how scary it is?
MITCHELL: Well, I’ve never really been able to watch it and be scared by it, honestly. I felt it when I wrote it and then, beyond that, it’s just about having faith in what I wrote and following through on the plan and making sure I get the pieces the way that I need them. It’s just about executing properly in production and then in post, you know, it’s working [with] and trusting my editor, and then also playing the film for people and seeing how they react. I’m too close to it. I can’t feel that. It doesn’t scare me.
It Follows has been on the festival circuit for quite a while now and everyone seems to love it, so are you gearing up for another film?
MITCHELL: I have several things that I’m working on and trying to put together. It’s hard to say exactly what’s next. I think I know what it is, but until I’m actually doing it, I never want to say because things change.
Are you getting a lot of horror offers because of all the hype surrounding this?
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, and that’s really cool! I’m flattered because, like I said, I haven’t done this. I haven’t made horror before so if people are thinking about me in that way, that’s really fantastic. I love horror movies, but it’s not the only thing I want to do. I would love to make another one at some point, another horror film, but not next. I want to jump around and do some different stuff. I like too many different kinds of movies to only want to do one kind.